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Australia: VR Therapy for Mental Well-being

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Swinburne University of Technology is pioneering a novel approach to managing Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) through a virtual sailing project, utilising cutting-edge technology from an industry partner. This groundbreaking initiative employs a sophisticated sailing simulator, which replicates the realistic movements of a boat, paired with a computer and screen to create an immersive experience.

Image Credits: Swinburne University of Technology, Press Release

The research aims to conduct a controlled clinical trial that combines virtual reality with sailing, focusing on measuring participants’ brain activity to assess the intervention’s effectiveness in treating MDD. This project leverages Swinburne’s expertise in neuroscience, exercise science, and digital health to explore the benefits of exercise-based therapy, which is widely recognised for its positive impact on mental health. Unlike traditional water-based activities, virtual sailing offers greater inclusivity and accessibility, enabling individuals, including those with disabilities or disadvantages, to safely enjoy the benefits of sailing on dry land under controlled conditions.

A key component of the study is active motor learning, facilitated by the real-time interaction between the simulator’s movements and the user’s control of the boat’s steering and sails. This technology allows participants to engage in a stimulating environment that involves visual perception and motor learning, elements known to enhance mental health outcomes.

Lead Researcher Dr Junhua Xiao of Swinburne emphasises the project’s potential to establish an evidence-based strategy for future clinical use, particularly for individuals with treatment-resistant MDD. Dr Xiao highlights the significant economic burden posed by MDD, with direct and indirect costs exceeding AU$1100 million, and the lack of effective management strategies. This project aims to address this critical gap by providing a novel and potentially cost-effective intervention.

Supported by an AU$ 100,000 grant from the Victorian Medical Research Acceleration Fund, this initiative marks the first academic-industry partnership of its kind in virtual sailing. Dr. Xiao sees this collaboration as a major advancement in mental health research and treatment, exemplifying the transformative potential of academic-industry partnerships to drive health innovation and impact.

The implications of this research extend beyond MDD. The portable nature of the virtual sailing technology suggests its potential for widespread implementation in various healthcare settings, including community healthcare services, hospitals, and aged care facilities. The combination of physical and cognitive activities required in virtual sailing has shown preliminary medical benefits, indicating its broader applicability for conditions such as dementia.

The Managing Director and CEO of the industry partner expressed optimism about the trial’s success and the potential for this intervention approach to be adopted across Victorian and other state health and wellness centres. Preliminary studies have already demonstrated the medical benefits of combining physical and cognitive activities, reinforcing the potential impact of this innovative approach.

By merging state-of-the-art technology with an immersive sailing experience, Swinburne’s project aims to transform lives by providing an accessible and effective treatment for MDD. This initiative not only highlights the university’s commitment to addressing mental health challenges but also underscores the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in advancing healthcare solutions. The research has the potential to pave the way for future treatments and improve the quality of life for individuals with MDD and other cognitive conditions.

Swinburne University of Technology is pioneering the use of cutting-edge technology to revolutionise mental health service planning and improve patient outcomes including the development of MChart, a business intelligence tool in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).  Spearheaded by Associate Professor Amir Aryani and the Social Data Analytics Lab, MChart leverages data analytics and geospatial mapping to enhance decision-making, improve patient access, and optimise resource allocation. MChart’s user-friendly interface and comprehensive analytics capabilities enable health planners to visualise intervention impacts and track performance, promising continuous enhancements in mental health care provision.


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